Child Marriage Bill Survives But Some Argue Restricting Teen Marriage Is Removing Freedoms

Addressing marriage age is an exercise in establishing Wyomings state rights, says House Bill 7 sponsor Rep. Dan Zwonitzer. Others argued the state should butt out as marriage is a contract between a man, a woman and their God.

Clair McFarland

January 19, 20234 min read

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By Clair McFarland, General Assignment Reporter     

A bill forbidding the issuance of state marriage licenses to minors ages 15 and younger survived its first debate in the Wyoming House of Representatives with a 36-27 vote of approval.   

House Bill 7, which would allow 16- and 17-year-olds to marry with parental permission, but would forbid the practice for children 15 and younger, now must survive two more House votes before advancing to the Senate.   

The bill also would allow emancipated teens or minors categorized by the state as independent homeless youth to obtain state marriage licenses.  

Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne, who sponsored the bill, told Cowboy State Daily it’s not intended to encourage marriage among such minors, but recognizes that they do have limited contracting rights, such as the right to rent a house or establish a bank account. 

The full floor session of the Wyoming House of Representatives on Jan. 18, 2023.

Robust Debate Over Government’s Role  

State representatives waged a hearty debate about whether the state has the right to tell families which of their teens are mature enough to marry.   

Zwonitzer told House members he brought the bill to reflect that the nation gives states the right to regulate marriage, and because he believes it would protect children from powerless situations.   

“(There) are people who don’t come forward until decades later saying, ‘I was a child bride.’ They’re in difficult, stressful, coercive toxic relationships,” said Zwonitzer. “You can’t go hire a divorce lawyer at 15; you don’t have any money, you don’t have any means, you’re controlled by your spouse.”   

Zwonitzer faced a series of questions from other House members, including whether the state should be stripping power away from families.   

“Some people are very immature at 16. Some people are very immature at 30,” said Rep. Pepper Ottman, R-Riverton. “So, I’m just wondering if we need to do anything with this. Is it our business?”   

Rep. Tomi Strock, R-Douglas, agreed, saying “every time we seem to meet down here, we seem to take away freedoms and rights.”  

Strock said that if teens are “bent on being together” and living together regardless, “whose right is it to say they can’t be together?”   

Religious Aspect  

The delegates didn’t have hard data on how many child marriages in Wyoming involve minors with adults, but the Wyoming Department of Health had testified on the bill during a committee meeting Tuesday that there are about 20 marriages per year involving minors.   

Rep. Ken Pendergraft, R-Sheridan, spoke against HB 7, saying marriage is a “contract between a man, a woman and their God,” and shouldn’t be overregulated by the state.   

Rep. Ember Oakley, R-Riverton, also is a sponsor on Zwonitzer’s bill.   

She countered Pendergraft, saying families in Wyoming that define marriage as a religious contract alone can secure such marriages without needing a state license.   

“But we’re talking about government-sanctioned marriage. This is a contract that goes through the courts,” said Oakley. “People can choose to practice as they want, but we sitting here as the government can say we’re not going to give you a governmental license to marry a child.”   

Rep. Mike Yin, D-Jackson, told the House that he fears not passing the bill could allow child sex traffickers to bring children to Wyoming to marry them to gain permanent control over them.   

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Clair McFarland

Crime and Courts Reporter